The Sea Dogs open the 2012-13 regular season at home against the Acadie-Bathurst Titan on Thursday. It will be a different-looking team than the ones that won back-to-back Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championships.
“We have a lot of skilled players, but they are young,” said Kelly, who grew up in Shamrock, P.E.I. “We are trying to get a lot of young players into our lineup. They need experience and time to grow as players.
“It will be very similar to the types of teams we’ve had in the past, but we are going to be younger and inexperienced.”
Kelly has taken over the head coaching duties from Summerside native Gerard (Turk) Gallant, who is now an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens. Kelly is no stranger to the Sea Dogs, having worked closely with Gallant as associate coach and director of hockey operations the past three seasons.
Kelly knows patience is going to be important with such a young team, but he is optimistic about the team’s outlook.
“We’re not going to be the powerhouse we were last year out of the gate, but I think the team will get better quickly,” offered Kelly, who likes the Sea Dogs’ depth up front. “I like our goaltending, and there’s not a part of our team that I’m disappointed in to be honest with you.”
The Sea Dogs are benefiting from the NHL lockout as the 2011 Memorial Cup’s most valuable player, Jonathan Huberdeau, who most certainly would have made the jump to the pro ranks with the Florida Panthers, will start the season in Saint John. The Panthers took Huberdeau with the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
“He’s the best player in the league,” said Kelly. “He’s a great influence on the younger guys, and it’s great to have him.”
Along with Kelly, there are four other local connections with the Sea Dogs. They include three former Summerside Western Capitals – Jason Cameron, Stephen Anderson and Ryan Kelly – and Spencer Smallman, who was born in Summerside and has family in West Prince.
Smallman, a 16-year-old rookie right-winger, is the son of former Capital and UNB Varsity Red Stacy Smallman.
“He’s (Smallman) been real good,” assessed Kelly. “We’re very, very happy with him.
“He’s young, he’s small and needs to grow a bit. He’s 5’11” but he’s still pretty light (162 pounds).
“We have a lot of skilled players, but they are young. We are trying to get a lot of young players into our lineup. They need experience and time to grow as players. It will be very similar to the types of teams we’ve had in the past, but we are going to be younger and inexperienced.” - Sea Dogs head coach Mike Kelly
“Those young players need opportunities to play, and we’re going to get them in the lineup and get them going. He’s a very smart player and very competitive, not unlike his father.”
Cameron, 19, had 12 points, including four goals, in 62 regular-season games in his sophomore season with the Sea Dogs. Now that he’s entering his third season, is Kelly looking for Cameron to take on a leadership role?
“We sure hope he (Cameron) does,” answered Kelly. “He’s an experienced player. . . He should know his way around.
“We need him to be a competitive guy for us, and play the way he knows he can play. He’s a strong defensive player, and he should be able to play in all three zones for us. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Anderson, a 17-year-old left-winger, spent most of first half of last season between the Capitals and Sea Dogs. He recorded 16 points, including six goals, in 26 regular-season games with Saint John while picking up 36 points, including 19 goals, in 31 regular-season games with the Caps.
“He (Anderson) played over 20 games for us last year, and played very well,” said Kelly. “I think he wore down a bit in the second half of the season with the Caps, but he had played a lot of hockey and had not been used to it.
“He came in (to camp) in pretty good shape. . . We are hoping he can bring speed and energy.”
Kelly, 18, can best be described as a stay-at-home defenceman. He had seven points, including one goal, in 50 regular-season games with the Caps in 2011-12.
“He’s (Kelly) been able to handle the pace very well because his skating is good,” said the head coach. “His instincts defensively are pretty good, and he competes hard.
“That’s not a bad place to start.
“Now if we can pick up some other parts of his game that will be a real benefit for us. If players come in with a decent understanding of how to defend, it’s a great place to start.”
Jason Simmonds is the sports editor of the Journal Pioneer. The “Islanders Away” feature appears every Thursday. To suggest an “Islander Away” please do so by emailing email@example.com.